How a hand-written note became a national movement


Hard to believe, but one of the most ubiquitous terms of caution and vigilance, particularly when it comes to public safety and potential threats, was almost a throwaway.

“If you See Something, Say Something,” was coined the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks by late New York ad executive Allen Kay, who scribbled the phrase on a 3-by-5 index card. He was thinking about potential slogans for civic engagement in the wake of the attack and jotted the phrase down without any specific client or project in mind.

Now, more than 20 years later, “See Something, Say Something,” has become part of the national lexicon. Much like “Just Say No” in the early 1980s and ’90s sought to spur action against illegal drugs, “See Something” looks to bring people together under a common banner for a greater good.

The slogan is synonymous with safety initiatives by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

The Washington Post calls it the unofficial slogan of post-9/11 America. “The mantra, posted on billboards and public transportation, turns us all into amateur anti-terrorism crusaders,” according to the Washington Post.

Today, the message is at the core of a variety of security efforts. Locally, SafeOC, which is the localized version of the national ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ anti-terrorism public awareness campaign,” is the county’s leading resource in anti-terror and public safety awareness.

Loaded with information, SafeOC’s two-fold goal is “To raise public awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crimes. To emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious items (e.g. an unattended bag in a public place) and behaviors (e.g. someone trying to break into a restricted area) to local law enforcement.”

This is predicated, the site states, on the theory that “You know your community better than anyone. No else can spot something odd or out of place better than you.”

A message without a target

For all its everywhereness now, the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something” has humble beginnings.

Soon after Key jotted it down, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York was looking to launch a campaign to encourage customers to report suspicious activity and be on the lookout for unattended packages. They contacted Kay, who still had the phrase on his index card, and used those words to launch awareness messaging in 2002.

Other candidates included, “Be suspicious of things that look suspicious” and “If you see a package without a person, don’t keep it to yourself.”

However, “If You See Something, Say Something” carried the day.

By 2003, the slogan was on posters and placards in subway cars, buses and trains at a cost of $2 million to $3 million annually. Reports of suspicious packages in New York grew from 814 in 2002 to 37,614 in 2006 and a bonafide phenomenon was born.

In 2007, the agency trademarked the slogan. However, tshe slogan’s resonance among New Yorkers is debatable. In 2008, the New York Times blogged about the MTA suspicious activity and package campaign and stated that more than 1,900 calls to a hotline yielded only 18 arrests, none with a direct connection to terrorism.

Homeland Security takes up the flag

In 2010, the MTA allowed DHS to use the slogan for its nationwide anti-terrorism campaign.

The DHS campaign was launched in conjunction with the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. Since then, DHS has partnered with organizations to raise awareness in communities across the country.

The message can be seen at major sports league stadiums, transit stations, entertainment venues, private businesses, places of worship, nonprofits, online, and on billboards.

The suspicious package issue gained resonance after the Boston Marathon bombing, a domestic terror attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, where two brothers planted homemade bombs hidden in backpacks. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated near the finish line of the race, killing three people and injuring hundreds, including 17 who lost limbs.

The “See Something” campaign has grown over the years. Officials have worked with states and regions to determine the most appropriate processes and methods for reporting suspicious activity. SafeOC works with local partners on training, education, and materials to promote the initiative.

In 2018, as part of Preparedness Month, which promotes readiness for any kind of disaster nationally or locally with ReadyOC, September 25 was designated “If You See Something, Say Something” Awareness Day, or #SeeSayDay.

Does it work?

In a country where freedom of expression and protections from unreasonable search and seizure by the government are bedrock principles, balancing freedom and safety can be delicate.

In its literature, DHS states, “This initiative does not promote spying on others, or making judgments based on beliefs, thoughts, ideas, expressions, associations, or speech unrelated to criminal activity.”

Proponents of “See Something” point out that freedom of speech does not extend to yelling “fire” in a theater. Law enforcement officials say preventing terrorist attacks in modern times requires a robust reporting system and sharing of information. Virtually all bad actors that carry out mass shootings and acts of terrorism leave clues in advance.

Separating the serious from the fanciful can blur the lines between safety and personal freedom.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” That continues to hold weight in the American psyche.

The Washington Post wrote in a perspective about the “See Something” slogan, “The expression makes us vigilant, but it also makes us paranoid. It’s turned us into a country of people who see danger lurking inside every forgotten backpack, making an in­cred­ibly remote risk feel imminent. Americans shouldn’t be encouraged to live in unreasonable fear. …Then again, not all fear is unreasonable.”

At a Safety Summit prior to the 2022-2023 school year, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes touted the importance of information sharing between agencies and a public seeing and saying something.

“I will tell you, over the years we have intervened and interrupted Columbine-like plans,” he said, referring to the 1999 mass shooting in Colorado. “We have removed bomb-making materials out of kids’ bedrooms, we have taken guns, we’ve (helped) kids with behavioral health issues into treatment to help keep them and their schools safe.”

It is impossible to quantify exactly how many would-be terrorist events and tragedies have been thwarted by a well-timed call by a concerned citizen or how many could have been stopped if the right people had responded. What seems certain is that “If You See Something, Say Something,” is an important part of the national lexicon.

Sign up for the ReadyOC newsletter here: and the SafeOC newsletter here: